Research deal at U stirs debate

The University signed a $1.7 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security to conduct research.

Just more than a year ago, bombs gnarled four commuter trains in Madrid, Spain.

The terrorist attack left approximately 190 people dead and nearly 1,800 injured.

Researchers at the University are trying to prevent history from repeating itself.

In August, the University signed a $1.7 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security to create software that would prevent similar events from occurring again.

After reviewing several applications from academic institutions and companies, the University was selected as the sole institution to conduct the research.

The software is designed to perform automated surveillance in transit stations to help monitor potential terrorist activity.

While some University officials and people involved say the research serves a national interest, others raise questions about this particular project because of the restrictions placed on it and the ethical implications involved.

The research

The research involves using software to monitor, detect and alert of strange behavior in multiple-stream video feeds to help identify possible terrorist threats in mass-transit systems.

Two University faculty members, two graduate students, a research engineer and a post doctoral student are involved in the research.

Philadelphia is one of many U.S. cities where University researchers are monitoring public transportation.

“More automated systems will help with detection on false alarms,” said Richard Voyles, a professor who is involved with the project. “A security guard would know when to ignore them and when not to.

“It’s not just the impact of making us safe by detecting threatening situations but detecting hoaxes as well.”

A few years ago, similar research was done at the University in conjunction with Metro Transit. The software helped monitor drug trafficking at local bus stops, Voyles said.

The problems

The contract with the Department of Homeland Security contains a clause that Edward Wink, associate vice president for research, called problematic: Before publication of the research results, the government has complete authority to withhold any information it thinks would compromise national security.

“(The line) isn’t specific,” Wink said. “It just says it’s up to them to determine what we can publish or not publish.”

The University’s Board of Regents has a policy that prohibits research at the institution in which some information might be withheld from publication.

“That was the big bugaboo in this whole thing,” Wink said.

However, there is an opportunity for an exemption. The principal investigator for the research can request an exemption to do the research with the restrictions.

In the last nine years, Wink said, there have only been four or five exemptions. That’s with approximately 3,200 awards coming in annually, he said.

All people involved were made aware of the contract and the possible limitations in publishing the research.

Researchers on the project said they are very confident all research will be published without information being withheld. However, there is a slight chance the research will not be published, said Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, a professor and the project’s adviser.

For the graduate students involved, that means there is a small possibility their theses or dissertations will not be published.

Papanikolopoulos said it would be unethical to “put someone in a position where after years I’m going to tell him or her that you can’t publish research.”

Different institutions vary on whether they will do restricted research.

The University of California, Berkeley has a policy similar to that of the University of Minnesota.

In most cases, the University of California, Berkeley does not allow any research in which restrictions are placed on it. However, faculty members can request an exemption.

Robert Price, the institution’s associate vice chancellor for research, said no exemptions have been granted nor have any faculty members filed a request in the last several years.

Price said he can understand why restrictions are sometimes placed on publishing research details and results.

“It stands to reason that if the research you’re doing, the work you’re doing, is in the counterterrorism area, you might not want the information you develop fall into the hands of terrorists,” he said.

There is a trade-off between openness and protecting the public, Price said.

“Life is full of trade-offs,” he said.

Wink said part of the argument to do the research, despite its publication restrictions, is that it serves national interests by lessening the possibility of terrorism in the public transportation system.

“If we had the ability to do something or to make it have an impact on this problem, people said we should do it,” Wink said. “If we don’t do it, somebody else will, and here’s an opportunity for us to help on an important issue.”

In addition to the restrictive clause, the University of Minnesota is not allowing a Bulgarian foreign national, Stefan Atev, who has a part-time appointment at the University of Minnesota as a graduate student, to work on the project.

Voyles said Atev was supposed to be a lead person on the project.

“It was always our intention for him to be on the project,” Voyles said.

But Wink said the project might be covered under International Traffic in Arms Regulations – U.S. Department of State guidelines for exporting intelligence information.

The guidelines are meant to prevent a part-time foreign national from sharing information with his or her home country.

The project could be covered under the guidelines, Wink said, which would prohibit a foreign national who does not have full-time job status in the United States from working on research.

“It was open to interpretation, but we took the conservative view,” he said.

The University of Minnesota has yet to hear from the Department of State on whether the research project is covered by the guidelines, Wink said.

“If we’re right that this is covered, then we haven’t done something that broke the law,” he said. “If we’re wrong, then we’ve inconvenienced ourselves and our graduate student, but you just can’t predict how these things will work out.”

The reforms

When the University of Minnesota first received the contract, people from the research office and the Office of the General Counsel tried to remove the restrictive clauses.

“We got to the point where they just said ‘This is the way it is. Take it or leave it,’ ” Wink said.

When any contract has restrictions, the University of Minnesota tries to negotiate them, he said.

Wink said faculty members will sometimes not do restrictive research.

Voyles said of the contract, “We did a lot of soul-searching on whether this was a worthwhile thing to accept.”

In the case of the Department of Homeland Security contract, the University of Minnesota had only two weeks to decide whether it would pursue the research, Wink said.

An exemption request was made to do the research, even with its publishing restrictions.

The University of Minnesota Senate Research Committee and the Subcommittee on Research Secrecy made recommendations to University President Bob Bruininks, who has the final say on whether the University of Minnesota should pursue the project.

During the last four or five exemption requests, there has been little time to review them, said professor Gary Balas, Senate Research Committee chairman.

This project was no different.

Approximately three years ago, he said, several exemption requests came in with little time to review them. That’s when the subcommittee was formed, he said.

The process for granting exemptions was “more ad hoc than we should have in place,” he said.

The subcommittee met to review the exemption for the Department of Homeland Security project, while the other committees went back and forth by e-mail, Balas said.

In response to having a short deadline for exemption-request decisions, the various committees involved are putting in place a procedure that would make reviewing more fair and consistent.

One potential change, which will likely be voted on in fall, involves having Tim Mulcahy, University of Minnesota vice president for research, decide whether to grant the exemption instead of the president, Balas said.

He said there is concern there will be more exemption requests for research with restrictions, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“If we don’t have a procedure in place that allows us to evaluate these fairly and consistently, we’re not going to be making the right decisions all the time,” Balas said.